“I feel like I’ve been kicked in the privates by a middle school soccer team.”
These were the words of Chamber of Commerce spokesman John Falstaff upon hearing that Brooks Brothers had closed its store in The Avenue at Tower City
It brought a solemn end to Cleveland’s 30-year quest to become the kind of bustling, international city where people pay too much for men’s wear.
“It’s over,” mourns Falstaff. “We’re now just another suburb of Parma.”
This was far from the case back in 1990, when Brooks Brothers opened at The Avenue. Market research showed that Cleveland’s four guys with money were traveling to New York and Chicago to shop. By luring Brooks Brothers – soon joined by Versace, Gucci and Harve Benard, which was often mistaken for an exotic cheese shop – the city would keep that money at home.
At the time, no one could foresee the difficulty in sustaining a luxury shopping center on the needs of just four people. Yet it would eventually become clear.
First, Craig Ehlo left the Cavs in free agency. Then former Mayor Mike White fled the city amid corruption charges, while County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora was sent to prison. That left East Side businessman Bernard Cook as the last man standing.
A funeral home mogul and frontman for a celebrated O’Jays cover band, Cook recalls how he once relished Brooks Brothers’ luxuriant wares, hand-stitched by the master prepubescent tailors of Bangladesh. But he grew “tired of shopping alone, especially when there was no one to get Sbarro with afterward.”
Two years ago, his wife threatened to throw out his collection of Brady Quinn jerseys if he didn’t start wearing them. Cook halted his journeys to Brooks Brothers altogether.
“Frankly, you’d be amazed at what a conversation starter a Quinn jersey is.”
The Avenue tried to hold on, rebranding to target Cleveland’s second-tier wealth, like Terry Bowman. The furnace salesman from Detroit-Shoreway could occasionally be seen browsing the racks of Brooks Brothers while exclaiming, “Christ, $998 for a Harris Tweed Walking Coat?”
There was also Bernice Turner, a homemaker from Glenville. She once went shopping for a nautical-themed tie for her husband’s birthday, only to find they cost $148.50, so she went to Kohl’s instead.
A Brooks Brothers corporate spokeswoman admits the company may have misjudged “Cleveland’s appetite for paying way too much.”
But she believes the clothier also fell prey to The Avenue’s spirited retail environment. “We were competing against heavyweights like the Federal Express deposit box and the Huntington Bank ATM. If we could have only pivoted to something fresh, like a maybe luxury pajamas kiosk, we might have stood a chance. But we simply weren’t nimble enough.”
In the meantime, Cleveland’s loss is Parma’s gain.
At a press conference yesterday, Mayor Tim DeGeeter officially declared his city “the foremost commercial and retail center in Northeast Ohio.” He noted that Parma has an American Commodore Tuxedo store, the Anthony Vince Nail Spa, and a Golden Corral. “Without Brooks Brothers, there’s no way Cleveland can compete with a Chocolate Wonderfall.”
Not so fast, says Warrensville Heights Mayor Brad Sellers, contesting DeGeeter’s claim to the throne. “Does Parma have a Marvin Window & Door Showcase?” he asks. “No, they do not.”
Regardless of who wins, Falstaff admits Cleveland can no longer play with the big boys. “We tried. We failed. So we must cede the field to fight another day.”
That day may not be far off. Negotiations are afoot to rebrand The Avenue as “City Block,” a home to corporations, tech start-ups, and venture capitalists. The idea stems from the same concept used to create the Medical Mart: That by simply declaring a building a “world-class entrepreneurial center," it will undoubtedly happen.
“My neighbor’s kid has this idea for a video game involving Minotaurs,” says Falstaff. “He’s only 8, so it’s not fleshed out yet. But if we can workshop more ideas like this, nobody’s going to care about Chocolate Wonderfalls anymore.”